This Thursday marks 250 days since the Associated Press and other news organizations declared Hillary Clinton to be the “apparent winner” of last year’s presidential election — and six months since Clinton took office. But it’s almost as though the election never ended. Just consider the stories that have dominated the news so far this week:
On Monday morning, Clinton and the rest of the political world awoke to a barrage of incendiary tweets from Donald Trump. “Crooked H is a failed, FAKE PRESIDENT,” said one of them, which linked to a Rasmussen Reports poll showing Clinton’s approval rating at 37 percent.
On Tuesday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr announced that he’d call upon former Attorney General Loretta Lynch to testify before his committee next week as part of hearings on whether Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, interfered with the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s private email server.
Also on Tuesday, Fox News’s Sean Hannity revealed what he said was “shocking new evidence” of widespread voter fraud in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, states Clinton won by just 7,000 and 17,000 votes, respectively. (Hannity’s evidence consisted of an academic paper that has widely been discredited.)
And on Wednesday, White House press secretary Brian Fallon got into a shouting match with reporters at his daily press briefing, triggered by what he later said was frustration over the media’s failure to cover new revelations about Russia’s apparent interference in the 2016 campaign.
These storylines — Trump tweeting something inflammatory about Clinton, Republicans investigating Clinton, Clinton feuding with the press — keep repeating themselves. It sometimes seems as though we’ve spent the six months of Clinton’s presidency trapped in the Most Annoying News Cycle Ever, with no chance of escape. But the truth is that there hasn’t been a whole lot else to talk about. With Republicans in charge of both chambers of Congress, Clinton has little hope of enacting her legislative agenda. And although North Korea’s increasingly ambitious nuclear tests are a major concern, Clinton’s foreign policy has largely been a continuation of Barack Obama’s and so has seldom made news. At this month’s G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, for instance, the media devoted more coverage to Clinton’s choice of pantsuits than to the G-20’s reaffirmation of the Paris climate accords. So let’s tune out the noise of the news cycle and consider Clinton’s first six months from a historical perspective.
Clinton is historically unpopular
Clinton’s presidency is not going all that well. Yes, the Rasmussen Reports poll Trump cited was an outlier, but her approval rating average is just 41.7 percent, the lowest at the six-month mark of any president elected since the 1930s (when approval ratings were first routinely collected). Yes, it’s silly to refer to Clinton as a “lame duck,” as The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd did last week in a column that called for Clinton to hand the presidency over to Vice President Tim Kaine, but Clinton hasn’t accomplished much on the policy front. Even relatively unambitious proposals that the White House once thought might attract some Republican support, such as a bill to tweak to the Family and Medical Leave Act, have instead been bogged down in congressional committees.
Clinton did manage one significant political accomplishment: getting Merrick Garland appointed to the Supreme Court. With the court set to consider a slate of landmark cases this year on matters including redistricting and abortion, the importance of that achievement should not be understated. But it came at a price. The deal she struck with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, which gave him input on several Cabinet appointments in exchange for his finding a few Republicans to back Garland, has come back to haunt her. The McConnell-approved choices, such as Attorney General Joe Lieberman and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, have often seemed to side more with congressional Republicans than with the White House. Furthermore, the deal meant Clinton paid for something — the Senate’s approval of well-qualified Cabinet and court picks — that other presidents have gotten for free.
Despite the roadblocks in Congress, Clinton does have the powers of the executive branch and all that entails. But since Democrats had already held the White House for eight years, there aren’t many presidential actions Clinton can take that Obama didn’t pursue already. Mostly, she’s been left to preserve his legacy, which Trump or another Republican president surely would have attempted to dismantle, especially in areas such as immigration, drug policy and criminal justice — and perhaps most importantly, Obamacare, which Trump repeatedly pledged to “repeal and replace” on the campaign trail. Fairly or not, it’s been hard for Clinton to get a lot of credit from the Democratic base for not undoing things as opposed to doing new things, and although she remains broadly popular with Democrats (with an 85 percent approval rating), her enthusiasm numbers are tepid.
But it’s also not clear whether we should have expected things to go much better for Clinton, considering her razor-thin Electoral College margin and the fact that Democrats don’t control either chamber of Congress. Clinton won the popular vote by 3.1 percentage points, or 4.2 million votes, not far removed from Obama’s 3.9-point margin over Mitt Romney in 2012. But Clinton ran up the score in wealthy cities and coastal states while substantially underperforming Obama in the Midwest, where a lot of Electoral College votes are up for grabs. As a result, she won only 276 electoral votes, compared to Obama’s 332 in 2012, and would have lost the election if Wisconsin (which Clinton won by only 0.2 percentage points), Pennsylvania (0.3 percentage points) or Michigan (0.8 percentage points) had gone Trump’s way.
The results were close enough, of course, that the networks and the AP didn’t call the race for Clinton until the Saturday after the election as provisional ballots trickled in from Milwaukee and Philadelphia. And even then, she faced an automatic recount in Pennsylvania and a Republican-financed recount in Wisconsin. (Florida also underwent an automatic recount, which could have worked out in Clinton’s favor, since she lost the state by only 0.2 percentage points.) These recounts were never very likely to change the outcome. But combined with Trump’s unwillingness to formally concede the election (notwithstanding his Inauguration Day tweet, “Congrats to my friends Crooked Hillary and Sick Bill - let’s hope they can #MAGA or we’ll see what happens!”) and the thinly evidenced but oft-repeated Republican claims about voter fraud, the recounts contributed to a national skepticism about Clinton. Her inauguration, when much of the press coverage focused on her becoming the first woman president, did produce a short-lived surge in Clinton’s approval rating, sending it into the mid-50s in early February. But it’s been downhill from there. And polls show that about 30 percent of Americans, including about 55 percent of Republicans, still don’t regard her as a “legitimate” president.
Republicans have big problems, too
The polarized conditions have caused problems for Republican leaders as well, and McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan have had to pick their battles. While McConnell’s deal with Clinton over Garland was widely praised by Beltway pundits, for example, it was reviled by both party bases: Rush Limbaugh and other conservative commentators urged McConnell to keep the ninth Supreme Court seat vacant indefinitely, while liberals were furious over the choice of Lieberman as attorney general and the fact that Clinton had to make a deal at all when polls showed that more than 60 percent of the public wanted Garland to be confirmed. (They also accused McConnell of reneging on the deal after Republicans declined to confirm Neera Tanden as secretary of health and human services.)
Republicans also face another, much bigger dilemma: impeachment. Although several House Republicans have filed articles of impeachment against Clinton, the House Judiciary Committee, at Ryan’s request, has so far declined to take them up. It’s not clear how much longer Ryan can hold the conservatives off, however. Most of the various investigations into Clinton haven’t turned up all that much news, but there have been some exceptions, such as in June when FBI Director James Comey testified that Lynch, the former attorney general who served under President Obama, sought to downplay the investigation into Clinton’s email server. And while polls show that only 35 to 40 percent of voters overall want Clinton to be impeached, more than 70 percent of Republicans favor her impeachment.
Then there’s the elephant in the room. With a favorability rating averaging 37 percent in recent polls, Trump remains highly unpopular with the broader public. But most Republicans like Trump, and he’s no more unpopular than he was during the campaign, when he was nearly able to win the election. Trump’s coalition of white voters without college degrees overperformed in the Electoral College, while Romney’s coalition, which was more suburban and well-educated, underperformed — a fact not lost on Republican leadership.
Amid some evidence that voters had “Trump fatigue,” Trump was uncharacteristically quiet in the first month or two after Clinton’s inauguration. But he’s been back with a vengeance in recent weeks, with near-daily tweetstorms and frequent appearances on Fox News’ “Hannity,” MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and CNN’s “The Recount With Kellyanne Conway.” Often his criticisms have focused as much on the Republican leadership as on Clinton, and various Trump-aligned super PACs stand ready to raise the stakes against McConnell and Ryan. So while House and Senate leaders have occasionally expressed “concern” over Trump’s erratic post-election behavior, they’ve failed to denounce it in more explicit terms.
An easier decision for McConnell and Ryan has been to not cooperate with Clinton on any of her legislative priorities. Obamacare remains quite unpopular, for instance, and polls show that most voters blame Clinton and the Democrats for its troubles as premiums rise and options decline in the individual health insurance marketplaces. Republicans have little incentive to agree to the fixes Clinton has proposed.
Democrats could face another catastrophic midterm
It’s not that congressional gridlock and partisan rancor are anything new, exactly; political polarization has been on the rise since the 1970s. But whereas Obama had a two-year window in which he was working with a Democratic Congress that helped him pass policies such as Obamacare, Clinton has had no such opportunity and is unlikely to get one any time soon.
Instead, seven Democratic senators face re-election next year in states Trump won (and another three are up for re-election in states that Clinton won by less than a percentage point) — whereas only one Republican senator, Nevada’s Dean Heller, will be on the ballot from a Clinton state. Polls so far suggest that the political climate is only mildly Republican-leaning amid broad dissatisfaction with both parties, but that could nevertheless be enough to topple these red-state Democrats, especially since the opposition party’s advantage often expands as the midterm approaches. Democrats must also contend with recruiting challenges: No serious challenger has stepped up to face Heller, for instance, whereas Rep. Ann Wagner, considered the Republicans’ top potential recruit, announced last week that she would run against the vulnerable Democratic senator Claire McCaskill in Missouri.
Special election results so far also ought to give Democrats pause. Democrats were cheered in April when their candidate, Kim Driscoll, won a special election in Massachusetts’ 6th Congressional District to replace Rep. Seth Moulton, who became Clinton’s secretary of Veterans Affairs. But Driscoll won by just 5 points, whereas Clinton had carried the district by 19 points last November. The result should have alarmed Democrats, but the media misconstrued it as a relief.
If there’s a faint hope for Democrats, it’s that Republicans could overplay their hand, as they did when they were building up to impeaching Bill Clinton in 1998. (The specter of impeachment helped Democrats make gains in the House that year — which is unusual for the president’s party.) But Bill Clinton was considerably more popular at that time than Hillary Clinton is now.
The White House is always in combat mode
Clinton branded herself a “fighter” on the campaign trail and has often lived up to the title as president. But unusually for a Democrat, many of her fights have been with the media. Some of the grievances have been carried over from the campaign; in an April interview with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer, for example, Clinton expressed disdain for how the mainstream media had covered Comey’s letter to Congress last October “like it was Pearl Harbor.” Clinton also claimed that the letter robbed her of a clear electoral mandate and may have cost Democrats the Senate.
Press secretary Fallon and White House chief of staff Huma Abedin have also been combative with the press. They’ve chided the media over what they say is its inattention to good economic news — the White House often brags about the Clinton/Obama job-creation streak, which now stands at 81 months — and its dismissiveness toward reports of Russian interference in last year’s campaign. (Last week, Mother Jones reported that Donald Trump Jr. had taken a meeting at Trump Tower with Russian operatives who promised to provide opposition research on Clinton, but more prominent outlets such as The New York Times have not picked up on the story.) Fallon and Abedin have also critiqued the media’s use of anonymous sources, especially after the incident in May when several news outlets falsely reported that Clinton would fire Comey from his role as FBI Director.
In many ways, the White House’s feud with the media is emblematic of Clinton’s approach to her political rivals. Some of her grievances are legitimate — for instance, the Comey letter probably did reduce Clinton’s margin of victory and cost her at least one or two states. But the White House’s reaction almost always inflames the situation rather than de-escalates it. It’s never quite possible to say which came first: Clinton’s contempt for her critics or their contempt for her.
So it goes with other points of conflict, too. Clinton’s relationships with congressional Republicans have been undermined by years of mutual distrust that date back to Bill Clinton’s tenure in office. And if Republicans haven’t found all that many smoking guns in their years of investigating the Clintons, they’ve certainly found lots of instances where the Clintons brushed up against the borders of acceptable conduct.
If there’s a central theme of our political era, it’s partisan polarization: Both Congress and the public are much more divided along party lines than they were a generation ago. The question is whether Clinton is a victim of that polarization or has helped to accelerate it.
Clinton is the caretaker of an unpopular status quo
Perhaps the best defense of Clinton is that her presidency has been successful by Hippocratic standards: First, do no harm. The White House has not engaged in the sort of explicit norm-breaking that one imagines might have occurred under a Trump presidency. There haven’t been any major military conflagrations, although Clinton did authorize a NATO-approved bombing raid against Syria in April. While Europe has suffered several major terror attacks during Clinton’s tenure, the U.S. has not. Clinton is popular with traditional American allies, and her chummy relationship with German chancellor Angela Merkel and U.K. prime minister Theresa May has spawned a thousand, mostly affectionate memes. (May’s Conservatives expanded their majority in parliament in the U.K. election last month, to the annoyance of some liberals who thought Clinton was too effusive in her praise of her). To Fallon and Abedin’s point, the job market has been fairly healthy, and the stock market (after the Dow Jones plunged 700 points on the morning after the election, when the outcome was still in doubt) has rebounded to all-time highs.
As we look ahead to 2020, let’s not underrate the power of incumbency — several past presidents, including Obama, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, survived a bruising midterm and approval ratings in the low 40s (or worse) only to be handily re-elected. But if Clinton’s pitch is essentially “Vote for me so that things don’t break,” the strategy has two potential liabilities.
One is that something could break; six months into the job, Clinton has not faced all that many tests. And on some matters, she will need Republican consent — she won’t always be able to work around the GOP. A government shutdown, which looms in the fall after Congress narrowly avoided one in the spring, might not have major economic consequences, but a failure to raise the federal debt ceiling could cause a financial crisis. That Clinton’s approval ratings are only in the low 40s despite a fairly good economy leaves open the question of how much further they might fall if the economy were to turn south.
Clinton’s other problem — and perhaps the reason she’s so unpopular in the first place — is that she’s defending a status quo that many Americans already think is broken. According to the RealClearPolitics polling average, only a third of voters say the country is moving in the “right direction,” while 60 percent say it’s on the “wrong track.” Trump’s narrow miss in the Electoral College and Bernie Sanders’s vigorous performance in last year’s Democratic primaries suggest that an increasing number of voters are willing to gamble on unconventional alternatives.
It’s hard to know what comes next, but despite Clinton’s win last November, we may be witnessing the final throes of the old political regime.